Rachel Bowanko: Common Ground

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Photo Credit: Claire Anderson 

When I was young I lived over the hill from a bustling creek. On days when the sun was shining, I would run downstairs and put on big black rain boots, ten sizes too big, grab a few black garbage bags, and race over the hill to that creek that I loved so dearly. The trees blew in, the wind and birds chirping above welcomed me back. I would find a large stick for balance and walk along the creek among the rocks, picking up trash along the way. Sometimes my mom would join, and other days I would make my friends come with me, pretending that we were grown-ups and that it was our job to clean the creek.

I spent a majority of my time by this creek, watching the fish, frogs, and birds among the trees, rocks, and mosses. I watched the seasons change around me and noticed patterns in nature such as the way the current flows and where the frogs find their homes at the end of the day. When I had a long day, I would walk down to the creek to think. Sitting on the rocks I could hear the wind through the trees somehow answering all my questions. The time I spent outside growing up taught me about the power of nature and my place within the world around me. It helped instill a desire and need to protect this world around me. Thinking back to the time I spent by this creek, I recognize just how instrumental it was in shaping who I am today. This creek taught me what it means to find your place within the world around you, and it taught me how to live among nature in a respectful and kind manner. With each change for the season, I became more grounded in my spot by the creek and my love for it grew deeper. From this love stemmed an obligation to protect it.

We spent one week in mid-October floating the Tongue River, and as we floated I remembered the time I spent near the creek by my house. Compared to the creek near my house, the Tongue River is a much more complex ecosystem with a larger community connected to it. The creek near my house supported fish and frogs, several insects, some mosses and vines, and some deciduous trees growing nearby. The Tongue River out here supports fish, insects, Cottonwoods and wildlife such as deer and coyotes. While the creek in my yard crossed through one habitat, the Tongue River spans riparian habitats, Ponderosa Pine forests, native grasslands, and rocky cliff banks lined with red strips from burned coal. The creek near my house was a place for fun and play for the neighborhood kids; out here the Tongue River supported several communities. Native Tribes relied on this sacred land for generations and homesteaders chose the Tongue River Valley to begin new lives in the late 1800’s. Intertwined with the river are all the stories of those who were here before and their connection to the land. Today the Tongue River continues to support agriculture through irrigation and in turn it supports our food supply. The creek was visited primarily by the neighborhood, often simply driven by in passing. The Tongue River, on the other hand is a home-utilized and revered by many different communities.

Despite these differences, there were also enormous parallels. The rush of the current near the storm drain at the end of the creek reminds me of the strainers we navigated around on the Tongue River. The abundance of minnows in the creek and frogs on the banks were reflections of how well the creek was doing, just as the fish and beavers in the Tongue River reflect that ecosystem’s health. Both bodies of water change with the seasons, as leaves turned bright yellow and fell before us during the float.

Beyond the environmental parallels, both bodies of water connect people to the land. The Tongue River Valley was the proposed site of a coal mine and a railroad to transport the coal. Recognizing the travesty this could lead to, members from all different communities came together to fight against the development of coal in this area, especially around the watershed. We’ve been lucky enough to meet several people from different groups who have organized the community around stopping the railroad. Most of those who we spoke to grew up by this river and had ancestors who did the same. Over the years they had formed a deep connection to the river and relied on it greatly. Although they come from different backgrounds, every person we spoke to had one thing in common: a connection and respect and love for the land. By finding this common ground and working together, they were able to create a meaningful difference as the railroad has finally, after thirty years, been stopped.

As we spoke to those in the Tongue River Valley and heard about their love for the river and land, I was reminded of myself as a child and the love I developed for the creek by my house. I believe that lasting change begins with a deep seated love for a place and a personally felt obligation to protect it. As Turner wrote in The Abstract Wild, “We value only what we know and love, and we no longer know or love the wild.” The value I placed on the creek growing up stems from the time I spent sitting with the frogs and watching the leaves change. Those who fought against the Tongue River Railroad grew up on this land and know it better than anyone else – they have seen the seasons change and recognize its value. With each passing day I am grateful of my childhood by the creek, a childhood that grounded me in nature and taught me the values of knowing and loving the land.

Shannon Quinn: Silent Warriors

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Photo Credit: Claire Anderson 

My belief is there is no feeling of greater warmth and security in nature than sitting beneath a ponderosa pine.  These wise old trees are indescribably beautiful, gentle, and majestic.  They provide shelter, a sturdy backrest, and the sweet smell of peeling vanilla bark.  The shedding of their bark and needles provide a soft bed of ground, decorated with fallen ornamental cones; they sacrifice themselves.  As I become encapsulated in a ponderosa pine forest in eastern Montana, I realize that these old trees have seen more than I have in my lifetime.  Their mere existence is a metaphor for timeless wisdom and grounded spirit.  If the age-old ponderosa pine could speak, what would it say?  Perhaps its virtue lies in its silence.  Perhaps humanity couldn’t handle the truth of its visions, for these old trees have seen how the land has fought for survival.  Sometimes the land has lost at our hand.

We must be the voice for these silent warriors.  We must use our gift of verbal communication to defend that which is so important, yet cannot defend itself.  In eastern Montana, people have chosen to fight back against those who wanted to destroy the land.  The threatened invasion of the Tongue River Railroad and proposed mining of the Otter Creek coal tracks have plagued a community for over three decades.  The railroad would have cut through the precious land and forests.  The mine would have sucked the land dry of its resources, offering nothing in return but money and energy that was destined to be shipped off to be used elsewhere.  If Otter Creek were mined, the trees and wildlife inhabiting the area would have been decimated, completely wiped out forever.  Through reclamation the land and forests might eventually return to a shell of its former self.  Dry, dead, torn up and soulless soil would coat a place that once breathed life.  The plants and grasses would have been placed there, the hills carved into the landscape by machines.  It would be unlikely that trees would ever be able to grow in this kind of wasteland.  Years of reclamation can never return the earth to its true state; it desecrates the place. In this particular case, Otter Creek and the surrounding area was rescued through a twist of fate.  The people took on the task of defending the environment and community.  They said no to the railroad and the mine.  They used their voices to protect what belonged to them and what belonged to the land, and they were able to stop this development project by persistence, passion, dedication, patience, and voice.  This required the binding together of diverse groups of people, from ranchers, to farmers, to the Northern Cheyenne.  When people believe that they have the ability to speak out against government intervention that they believe is wrong, then they are able to defend the wildlife, landscapes, and forests that cannot speak for themselves; those who would have so much to say if they could.

If the ponderosa pines of eastern Montana could speak, they might speak of the battles they have seen as humans fought for their rights to the land and to existence.  They might speak of the changes to the landscape that occurred from these battles.  They might express gratitude and respect for those who have dedicated their time to learning to understand them and to protect them from harm.  The ponderosa pine that I sit beneath today almost did not exist to see my lifetime.  I like to imagine a world where future generations might be able to sit beneath the same tree long after I am gone.

Claire Anderson: Connection of Soils and Souls

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The Summer Day by Mary Oliver—

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?

The grasshopper I mean-

The one who has flung herself out of the grass

The one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

Who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down

Who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

At first my eyes are drawn to the big trees and bright wildflowers, the turquoise and purple rocks, the birds and bugs. Lastly, they settle on the soil I am sitting on.

We were told to observe our surroundings, so I sat staring at the soil for a while. Just looking at the dirt; searching for any sign of movement or life that I could have missed at first glance. I know there are tons of tiny bacteria and organisms moving around, influencing other essential parts of this ecosystem I’m sitting in, but I just don’t see it. I have difficulty taking time to myself to quiet my mind and pay attention to what’s around me, but the beginning of this course has sparked a conscious effort to reverse this. I want to attempt to acknowledge the processes I understand and more importantly, what I don’t understand, and the significance of relationships happening beneath my feet and all around that are unapparent to me. The soil offers so much more to me than what first meets the eye; a place to sit and reflect on what’s around me.

Our first reading on this course was about natural history and one of the eight steps to becoming a natural historian according to Thomas Lowe Fleischner is attentiveness. Fleischner explained this idea by quoting the poet John Haines, “passionate attention to the world—an attention to which the least detail has its instructive significance—is perhaps the most telling and important trait in our inheritance. Without it there is no art, no love, no possibility of domestic or political harmony. On it alone may rest our prospects for the future” (23).

I really like the phrase “passionate attention” that Haines uses. This suggests a more intense observation of detail that I don’t normally give to things. I’d say I’m good at giving passionate attention to people I care about, but not something like the soil. Yet, it is the soil that helps to sustain the people that I give passionate attention to. The things I pay passionate attention to tell a lot about me as a person, and the things I don’t pay passionate attention to may say even more about my understanding of the “instructive significance” of what I don’t see as important. By starting out with what I care about passionately, say it’s my family, and then paying attention to what sustains them, it is easy to see how connected to me and how precious these tiny bacteria and fungi and lichens in soil are. They strengthen the health of the soil that holds and nourishes the foods that are planted and harvested by farmers and sold to grocery stores or farmer’s markets where a cashier sells the food to my mom or dad, brother or grandma.

This is a very simplified example of how things are connected, but think about what would happen if we did this with everything we are passionate about. I’m a big fan of writing letters, I love having something tangible to give to others that contains words that reassure and affirm just how much they are loved and cherished. What are the resources and who are the people involved in helping me write these letters that are so important to me? I have to think about the paper I have, the person I purchased it from, who supplied it to the store, all the way back to the workers at the paper mill, loggers who cut down the trees, who right off the bat I would say I have no see-able connection to, down to the soil that sustained the tree that grew to give me paper to write my letters and sustain these connections with my people. These materials, people, and processes are absolutely linked to me and the people I know and it’s such a shame to forget that.

Harmony and progress comes through deep connections with each other and that can also be applied to the land. We don’t understand each other because we don’t take the time to sit and listen and quiet our own minds. In order to gain understanding we can have no preconceived notions or biased views of what we’re observing. It is just as important to pay attention and listen to the land as it is other people.

Paying attention to that last detail is hard. I walk over so much soil in my daily life, so much soil! And regardless of taking numerous environmental ethics classes that get me thinking about my connection with the land, I haven’t thought about this soil and all that it holds more than twice, if even that many times.

I think a lot about the poem The Summer Day by Mary Oliver, particularly the ending.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

Into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

How to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the field,

Which is what I have been doing all day,

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

Realizing how little I actually know is overwhelming, but I know how to fall down in the grass, and stroll through a field. Coming upon new environments during our backpacking through the Scapegoat Wilderness, we’ve been asked to sit and use all of our senses to understand the new environment we’re in. These reflections have helped me to be idle.

Just by sitting still and letting my hands slide across smooth rocks and listening to individual water droplets gliding up the shore, I realize that just being open to the fact that I don’t understand how everything works, is half the battle.

So, I do not understand many of the connections that are essential to producing healthy soil and healthy crops, or how much detail and work goes into producing the materials I use every day. I am, however, figuring out how to be still and listen to the earth and realize that it has a lot to say and I just need to listen.

Rae Bronenkant: Paradise Valley Pack-Up

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Rae is an environmental studies major at the University of Vermont. She participated in the 2016 Montana Afoot and Afloat course and wrote this poem about her time in the Paradise Valley.

Three nights in paradise; frozen finger tips, white as fogged breath in the cool morning from the calm practice of of breaking down a tent.
River beside me flows north, across it sits a large silhouette of a Golden Eagle, who occasionally shrieks out across the river, giving feelings of the power of this land.
Though in his name is golden, he does not glow as the Aspens do, who in the light morning breeze blow their leaves, swirling around us to the ground, feeling as though in a leaf globe as the light comes over the surrounding mountain tops and illuminates the leaves even more.
The slow warming of the day causes droplets on frozen blades of golden grass
The angle so perfectly causes a rainbow of gems along the ground
Not diamonds in the sky and only lasting a few moments, this place where we slept last night is littered with gems.
The eagle calls once more, I snap back to breaking down tent poles
Thinking of being woken by the sand hill cranes this morning, my heart sings
This is home
Home is the journey, the moments, the reciprocated wild in my soul, home is ever changing, it is nature and I am in love.

Ben Warzon: What a “place” can mean

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs we left the shore of the muddy Missouri, we crossed a cow burnt field and started up a draw. We worked our way through the rolling hills, which flanked the mouth of what would soon be Neat Coulee. We bobbed or way up canyon, slowly pristine white Virgelle Sandstone rose like the walls of Zion. Juniper and limber pine dominated the plant community, species hardly seen down the river. Moist, white sand replaced the gumbo mud and welcomed our softening steps as our heads craned skyward. My neck creaked with the stark contrast from staring at the flat surface of the ‘Mo’ for days on end. With this tinge of pain, I was flooded with confusion. Are we still in Montana? We surely didn’t teleport to the Southwest. But there is no way we are on the plains, or in the mountains for that matter. As we sit at the head of this bizarre slot, all it takes is a moment of presence and it all comes together.

What do I mean by a moment of presence? Basically the simple awareness of where one is by feeling the soil, hearing the wind, and just engaging with the surroundings. The familiar can often let presence slip away, but an unexpected or large change snaps us back rather quickly. For me, the experience of Neat Coulee on the Missouri River was certainly one of those moments.  The initial feelings were definitely unsettling, almost a loss of where I was. Such contrasting landscapes must mean a new place. In reality, however, it meant a deeper understanding of this complex place. This was not an anomaly, rather an important step in understanding the breaks. A billion years of processes have created this place and the experience it provides. It is these intimate interactions that create a sense of a place.

This is a phrase we often hear thrown around but rarely stop to think about what it means. There are many pieces to an individual’s sense of place, but it starts with simply being present.  A sense of place is not an abstract or conceptualized idea. It cannot be defined by science or really even words. A sense of place is as simple as the feeling that you are home after a long day. It might just be a touch of fabric on your bed or the smell of the trees. Truly it is just an awareness of where you are. Without that small awareness, though, we lose our culture, traditions, values and roots. That is place.

On a grander scale, a sense of place means being an engaged participant where you live. We can develop a sense of place by exploring our world–both near and far–all it takes is walking out the door and paying attention. Through these explorations we will become invested in our neighborhoods and communities, we will know more about them and understand what they mean. As I sat in the sand of Neat Coulee, I was able gain a greater understanding of and connection to the mighty Missouri River and the state it is born in.

Shane Randle: Environmentalism & Religion

14976471_1357390087606854_8557159165283576829_oIs environmentalism a form of religion? Environmentalists all share a view on what is important to us in the world: the animals, the land, and the natural processes that surround us. Environmentalism gives us a set of broad ethics that translate into a belief on how to treat the world around us: with respect.

In class we were talking about renewable energy and how solar and wind power are now accessible, cheap, efficient, and being integrated into our national (and global) grid. This discussion followed a tour around the Judith Gap Wind Farm, where we learned about how companies like Invenergy are building large-scale wind farms to accommodate our society’s energy needs and [hopefully] take the place of other types of energy production such as the use of coal. To many of us on the course, we have an ethical obligation to not only support that change, but to also be vocal advocates for that change.

As Derick Jensen wrote in his article “Forget Shorter Showers: Why personal change does not equal political change,” changing our personal habits (in terms of energy use or any other environmental issue) isn’t going to cut it. The amount of water you save by shortening your shower won’t truly help the water issue on a large scale. Instead, we need to work on social and political levels to effect the necessary broad-scale environmental change that we seek. He doesn’t tell us to forego personal changes, however. He simply tells us that those changes are not enough. We need to become activists.

As environmentalists, we generally agree that sharing our views and affecting change is for the benefit of everyone (and everything). We preach saving the earth in order to save humanity. Isn’t this very similar to the evangelizing prominent in many religions? This realization has opened my eyes and changed some of my views on evangelization: people coming to your door to preach religion or talk to you about important environmental measures are just doing what they believe is good and right. Both environmentalism and religion give people not only a moral way of thinking about the world, but also a moral way of acting within it.

These are simply guidelines. Through the lens of environmentalism, or religion, people are able to create their own personal sets of ethics by which to live their life. That’s exactly what we are doing out here. By traveling through the mountains, rivers, and towns of Montana, I’m able to take the general ethics I’ve been taught through environmentalism and make them my own. Then, taking into account my personal ethics, I can become a heartfelt advocate for what I truly believe in.  I can become someone I’ll be proud to be.

Bonita Pernot: Power and Place in the Big Snowy Mountains

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Our group dispersed along the ridge of Great House Peak—the highest point in Montana’s Big Snowy Mountains, standing 8,681’ high—to find a spot to take in the expansive view. It is said to be “the best view in all of Montana,” but all I know is that it had me feeling a little wonder-struck. I looked out onto the plains and distant mountains, felt the wind’s constant rush, and thought about the beauty and power of this place.

I thought that this moment on the summit of Great House would be the highlight of the venture, but this was not the case; on our way down, we stumbled upon a dead bird. We hurried to gather around and see what kind it was and speculate on how it may have died. Initially, I was shocked to see that the bird was a Northern Flicker. What was it doing so far above the tree line? I was in awe over how intact this dead bird was. What caused this bird to die in such a way that it was able to maintain its form? The only sign of distress that the bird displayed was a neck that was weak and cranked to the side. Could it have been caught in an unfamiliar wind current, carried away, and then crashed into the mountainside? These kinds of questions were speeding through my head.

Soon after contemplating these mysteries, a new wonder began to captivate me; the Northern Flicker is a common bird, and while I had often marveled at its flash of orange from under the wings as it flies from tree to tree, I had thought that it was otherwise fairly simple. From afar, the flicker had always looked like a plain brown bird that displayed an occasional flash of orange, but seeing this bird so close, so still, offered an entirely new perspective. There was so much more intricacy to the Flicker than I could have ever conceived. The feathers that had appeared to be a flat brown were actually littered with black speckles, crescents, and spots. Just as I thought that I had observed the full extent of this bird’s intricacy, we flipped it over and opened its wings to reveal even more: the chest was covered with fluffy white feathers that were speckled with black, the tail feathers were sleek, black and long, with orange undertones, the wings revealed a lateral white streak with orange accents surrounding it and black stripes going horizontally near the tips, and a layer of white fluffy plumage created a line near the front of the wings.

Seeing this bird in such pristine condition and marveling at its intricacies was the most powerful moment of my hike on Great House Peak. I examined this bird with curiosity and reverence. I wondered how it had gotten there, but more than that I wondered what this individual had seen, done, and acted like through its lifetime. I longed to know more. Finding this Flicker had me feeling a greater amount of power than I had while looking out at the scenic view from the summit. It’s hard for me to tap into the exact emotions that I felt in this moment, but I know that it was something sacred. I felt the majesty and spirit of the Big Snowy Mountains in looking at this small, perfectly dead bird; a seemingly insignificant moment reminded me of the life and energy that had been surrounding me throughout our entire backpack. It was the dead flicker that filled me with joy, serenity, and reverence for the natural systems around me. My goal had been to reach the top of Great House Peak, but my true treasure was found on the downward slope of the mountain. There is no way of knowing what lies ahead and no way to tell where we will find our true connection with the wild world around us.

Power and place are found in unexpected moments.